Since 2008, taxpayers burdened by debt that they did not create have learned that the global market economy is not rational. The mechanics of credit derivatives remain incomprehensible to most of us - and were plainly as baffling to many of the fools who traded them - but one truth stands out: touted as devices to reduce risk and promote prosperity, these products magnified the former and undermined the latter. Thus Britons who have never purchased shares own majority stakes in banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, and global financial services companies including Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns have ceased to trade. Risk has been nationalised, but the public must wait for profits.
This much we know because it is brought home to us daily in cuts to public services. We feel it every time we buy fuel and in the misery of friends who have lost jobs. In the news industry, editors have responded appropriately. Determined to serve the democratic process, as they must, editors engaged in public service journalism have elevated into mainstream output material that was once reserved for business pages and specialist websites. The economy is now front-page news.
So, readers anxious to understand the techniques that journalists have used to explain how investment banks, hedge funds and private equity funds created the economic crisis might consider reading this book. But they would regret it. Mark D. Jacobs' foreword attempts to portray the contents of this book as relevant to liberal capitalism's most recent stumble, but the stretch marks are visible in every syllable. Gerald Suttles' research was completed before Northern Rock faltered. It was written in a different world.
This is a work of economic sociology conceived before the dawn of multimedia convergence. It applies techniques of cultural and literary analysis to coverage by the Chicago Tribune of the financial crises of 1929 and 1987. As such it makes a thoughtful contribution to an esoteric field.
Suttles discovers interesting changes in deployment of the word "economy". He reveals that its modern meaning did not exist in 1929. A term used to describe the activities of business alone - and interpreted through metaphors gleaned from nature - had, 58 years later, developed into one conceived primarily according to a new metaphor of a machine subject to management.
This book is the product of intense and meticulous research in the microfiche room of the Chicago Public Library. It adapts a methodology first used in a study of language chosen by US social workers to explain their failures. Moving beyond conventional content analysis, it seeks to understand how popular economics is framed and embedded in collective memory.
Suttles describes expertly how reporting of the economy was transformed in the US between 1929 and 1987. He offers an intriguing portrait of two big news stories and the changing language used to interpret them by financial reporters and politicians. Do readers and journalists operate in isolation? Or do they share what Suttles calls "a kind of shared word magic" that helps to make harsh economic news comprehensible and less threatening?
This is a major work of scholarship. To the extent that cultural studies can aid our understanding of economic history, it is precious. But it is also dated. Future analyses of economic reporting will not dare to ignore the internet. Journalists did not hand down on tablets of stone their explanations of the 2008 economic crisis. They were obliged to interact with their fellow citizens via social networks and to defend their analyses against constant challenge. Modern journalists do not simply make news; they curate information from an unprecedented range of sources. The news industry Suttles sought to understand has changed utterly.
Front Page Economics
By Gerald D. Suttles. University of Chicago Press 2pp, £24.00. ISBN 9780226781983. Published 25 March 2011